City on the brink: Petersburg can’t pay its bills and time is running out
By Gregory S. Schneider
PETERSBURG, Va. — She had felt sick the night before when she broke the news to department heads, and now it was 4:30 p.m. and Dironna Moore Belton still couldn’t eat her lunch. She opened her salad and found that her fiance had slipped in a note of encouragement.
She was going to need the note more than the food.
Belton, 38, the interim city manager, was about to step in front of the City Council and a packed hall of residents and tell them they had to make drastic — even shocking — cuts to city services. Reduce funding for schools whose students are already among the lowest-performing in the state. Cut fire and police in a city that has an unusually high rate of violent crime. Close departments, shrink city pay, shut down museums. Even withdraw support for the summer league baseball team.
The alternative was far worse.
Without these steps, Belton would tell them, Petersburg had about a month before it would confront the unthinkable: total collapse.
This city of 32,000 just south of Richmond is facing a financial crisis unusual for fiscally conservative Virginia — or any state. In at least the past four years, the city had spent all of its reserves and then kept spending money it didn’t have. It took out short-term loans based on anticipated tax revenue to keep paying bills.
When the loans ran out, it stopped paying. Some fire and rescue equipment has been repossessed. The city trash hauler is threatening to stop pickup. And lenders will not give Petersburg any more loans.
In his 46 years minding state ledgers in various roles, Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown has never seen anything like it. “As a rule, most Virginia localities are in pretty good shape,” Brown said.
What’s more, there is no mechanism in state law to help Petersburg — no provision for bankruptcy, no set way for the General Assembly to step in.
Belton’s task was to make the council confront this and act. Every member would hate to hear the message, and the prescription would draw gasps and cries of disbelief from residents at the meeting later that night. And to make it a little tougher for Belton, this toxic presentation was, in effect, her job application.
As interim city manager since March 4, Belton was living out a dream she had had since coming up through the Petersburg schools. Hers was an unlikely ambition — a young black girl hoping to lead a city that, at the time, was largely run by whites. Now she had the chance. But she had to apply for the permanent job at the same time she was recommending measures no city wants to do.
So, no, she hadn’t eaten lunch. She didn’t have the stomach for it.
Trouble with water meters
Petersburg’s budget crisis began coming to light early this year, but the city has a long relationship with suffering. Residents are quick to cite three momentous calamities, even though one occurred more than 150 years ago.
The siege of Petersburg during the Civil War continues to define the place. The fame of that nine-month stalemate, when Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant camped outside of town and residents black and white starved within, has long been a lure for history-minded tourists. Old families still tell tales of scraping by.
More recently, in 1985, the tobacco giant Brown & Williamson moved out of state, taking thousands of jobs and pulling the props out of the local economy. And in 1993, a deadly tornado blasted through the downtown historic district and set back revitalization efforts by decades.
Add in the recent recession and nationwide real estate crisis, and today Petersburg’s economy is a shambles. Nearly three in 10 residents live in poverty, more than twice the statewide rate. As the population has declined from its peak in 1980, it has also gotten older — more than 15 percent of residents are 65 or older, vs. 13 percent statewide.
And its streets of dilapidated and abandoned homes can make Petersburg the butt of jokes, such as earlier this month when actor Rainn Wilson, in town to shoot a movie, posted an Instagram photo of a boarded-up building behind a sign proclaiming “Upscale Apartment Living” and captioned it “. . . courtesy of Petersburg, Virginia.”
So it’s not surprising that the city would have budget problems. But the magnitude went either unnoticed or unaddressed. The previous city manager oversaw construction of a $12.7 million public library and, early this year, had the council considering plans to replace the 1856 city hall building with an $18 million complex. It all unraveled, however, after a problem with water meters.
A campaign to install new “smart” meters throughout Petersburg was a disaster. Some of the new devices were calibrated wrong and some were installed incorrectly. Water billings went haywire. Some residents weren’t billed for months at a time while others got exorbitant bills. And revenue stopped flowing to the city, causing a money crunch.
Mayor W. Howard Myers said the council fired in March its city manager, William E. Johnson III, in large part because of the meter fiasco. For an interim manager, city leaders turned to Belton, who had come to oversee Petersburg’s transit system in 2013 after working in state government.
“We felt she was doing a wonderful job with our bus transit system, and we felt that — being vested in the city of Petersburg — she would be the best individual to help us move forward,” Myers said.
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